Friday, December 28, 2007

Eight for Oh-Eight

As we head out of 2007 and into 2008, EPCOT Center’s 25th anniversary is only a memory ... but not the feelings it stirred. Although I wasn’t there, I’ve seen photos and obtained some of the merchandise. For one fine day, Disney was willing to acknowledge that the fast-paced, frenetic, identity-challenged theme park that has become Epcot had a past. And a great one, at that.

But it’s not time for looking back, it’s time for looking ahead. In that spirit, here are eight suggestions for EPCOT in the New Year, four for Future World, four for World Showcase:


8) De-clutter
There are few places in the world (both capitalized and not) that are quite as lovely as World Showcase on a warm evening just before Illuminations. If, that is, you’re facing the water. Look behind you, and you’re likely to see cast members acting like carnival barkers, hawking needless, and needlessly expensive, doo-dads like glo-sticks, light-up necklaces and your basic sideshow junk. This is exactly the sort of experience that is not supposed to happen at a Disney theme park. Clean up those walkways and let your guests bask in the spirit and atmosphere of World Showcase at night.

7) Cut it Short
Let’s be honest: Martin Short’s appearance in the revised O Canada film is pathetically unfunny and out of place. Even assuming 40 percent of the audience knows who the actor is, having Short “host” this experience is completely out of keeping with the concept of the pavilion’s feature attraction. It’s OK to admit mistakes. In fact, it’s a good thing. A couple of weeks in the cutting room would do wonders to this movie, updating the CircleVision/travelogue experience, while eliminating the superfluous appearances of a “Canadian celebrity.” Many people have said they “don’t mind” the new O Canada, but I’ve yet to hear from anyone who loves it. Canada deserves better than this, and has much spectacle to offer ... as anyone who saw the previous version can tell you.

6) Show us OUR world
No one likes looking at pictures of themselves 25 years ago; fewer still like seeing pictures of other people as they were “back then.” So why do Impressions de France and the wonderful (and sadly neglected) film in the Norway pavilion look so dated? I’d like to believe Norwegians have advanced beyond monochrome computer display terminals and big 1980s hair. Or that the Monaco Grand Prix has developed a little beyond what we see in Impressions. These are lovely movies, but they don’t showcase the world as we know it today. If you can spend millions to develop a Kim Possible interactive “adventure,” can’t you spend a little bit of money to properly present the home countries of tens of millions of people?

5) Put princesses in proper perspective
I know, I know, I know ... I don’t have kids, so I can’t possibly know what it is like to have a screaming six-year-old girl tell me over and over how bored she is. More than anything, that makes me wonder why a six-year-old who clearly isn’t ready to appreciate a place like EPCOT is doing there in the first place. OK, there, I’ve said it. But more than that, what about the rest of us? What about those millions of visitors a year who come without kids, who are actually excited by the prospect of visiting different pavilions in EPCOT and, particularly, dining on meals they couldn’t get at home? To put a fine point on it: Please bring back the former incarnation of Akershus. If you absolutely need to do a princess meal there, do it once a day, but there are many people who don’t really like what Akershus has become and who miss their old favorite restaurant. With its authentic Norwegian food (which really is quite a unique cuisine), Akershus offered something few people can ever find outside of Norway itself. It was a grand place. Now (even for some parents I know – admit it, you’re out there) it has become virtually insufferable. There are plenty of other princess opportunities; you can’t say that about Norwegian restaurants.


4) Get a Life
The Walt Disney Company has revenues on the order of $30 billion a year. It’s worth $65 billion. It’s impossible for me to believe, even with a basic understanding of the economics of the situation, that The Walt Disney Company cannot re-open and maintain the Wonders of Life pavilion at EPCOT without a sponsor. Around the world, people have never been as curious, concerned and intrigued about their bodies, and the science that is helping to improve and maintain them, than they are now. The Wonders of Life needed a massive overhaul, there’s no doubt about it. But closure wasn’t quite the overhaul anyone had in mind. Now, there’s a “Closed for Business” sign in a window at EPCOT, and it is unattractive, embarrassing and completely unnecessary. With the imagination and money Disney has at its disposal, something can surely be done here in 2008.

3) Innovent
Is that even a verb? If “Innoventions” is a noun, then I guess it is. But something needs to be done about Innoventions. Maybe it should be turned back into CommuniCore? Maybe it needs to be gutted? Maybe Disney needs to assign a staff of two or three people to focus only, and completely, on Innoventions, and the rest of the massive structures that form “Innoventions plaza”? From Day 1, these have been admittedly overlooked. But architecturally, they serve an important purpose, of separating the two sides of Future World, of not overwhelming visitors by giving them vistas of massive pavilions, of visually linking the two halves of EPCOT with a straight shot down to the American Adventure pavilion. They work as architecture ... it’s what’s inside of them that’s the problem. I’ve probably got more “new” technology in my home than is represented in much of Innoventions. It needs some help. Badly. (Oh, and please don’t just throw Pixar or Disney cartoon characters into it!)

2) De-clutter
Yeah, you need to do it here, too. First up, those Ballzac stations. Please, please get rid of them. Like those glow-y things over at World Showcase, no one needs them, they add nothing to the EPCOT experience and, in this particular case, they’re borderline dangerous. Ever had to duck to avoid a mis-thrown or un-caught Ballzac? Ugh. Second, and more to the point, make good on the rumor to tear down the purple circus-tent poles that prevent a good view of Spaceship Earth from anywhere in Innoventions Plaza. They’re unsightly, they don’t actually create much shade (or cool things down) and they ruin a marvelous landmark. Let’s hope those rumors are true!

1) Energize
The Universe of Energy pavilion is in desperate need of work. What we’re talking about, essentially, are a few really creative, exciting, vibrant films (and maybe the return of the Radok blocks, while you’re at it?). I don’t know a lot about theme-park production, but I know a bit about the entertainment industry, and I’d find it hard to believe that between Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Imagineering, you couldn’t create something incredible for the Universe of Energy. I like Ellen. Really. I watch her show whenever I can. But she never really fit into this pavilion, and now that she’s still paired with Bill Nye and a 15-year-old version of Jeopardy!, it all feels so terribly outdated. Perhaps no single topic is as valid, as necessary, as exciting and as potentially fascinating as the future of our world’s energy needs. There’s a minor miracle of an attraction waiting to happen here, one that could very well define a new style of Disney theme-park attraction – combining the ride vehicle, Audio-Animatronics, 3-D, computer-generated imagery, live performers, music, interactivity and education. It could be mind-blowing.

Hey, it could happen!

Whatever the case, here’s hoping that the positive steps that have been taken at EPCOT will continue into the future ... and that this becomes the year Disney understands that EPCOT is a brand unto itself, it has a meaning, it is a place that matters. It doesn’t need a lot of cartoon overlays and meaningless thrill rides. EPCOT is something special.

Happy New Year, EPCOT ... and EPCOT lovers!


Joel said...

I agree with you 100%, but the fact of the matter (sadly) is that the decisions that would change this simply would not be "economically viable" in this new "marketing driven" Disney.

In regards to #5, in particular -- this just isn't going to happen. While I agree that unique cuisine better fits EPCOT's original vision, the fact of the matter is it was the most sparsely visited restaurant before it's conversion. Germany would be a close second there. Eastern European/Scandinavian food is just "too weird" for your average guest.

All in all, again I totally agree with you. I just want to provide the perspective of what's causing the choices to be made -- it's essentially "Walmartization" that's causing this. If you can make it cheaply and the average person (which really is 90% of guests) keep buying, it's not going to hurt the bottom line to make crap and no adhere to any sort of "old school" principles.

I fear the only place at WDW that really is "old" WDW is now Ft. Wilderness, especially the campfire area.

It's just darned depressing...

Joel said...

PS -- sorry for the typo's. Should be "its" and "not" in 2 areas.

Greg said...

Great insights. I do wish Disney would look past sponsorships and do the right thing. Not only on Wonders of Life, but in other areas. For instance, could we get a bit of the magic back into the Imagination pavilion?

Epcot82 said...

Hey Joel -- Thanks for your note. I have to say I disagree. For 16 years, Akershus served its unique cuisine and everytime I went there it was full. "The economically viable" angle is one that's particularly dubious for The Walt Disney Company, which routinely spends money on TV shows and movies that don't turn a profit, pours good money after bad at its lackluster theme parks (Hong Kong, Disneyland Paris, California Adventure -- basically any park built since 1998), and pays its "senior management" salaries that should make anyone blush. This boils down to simple pandering; Disney's MBA-schooled managers want to turn its parks into something that looks attractive on paper, whether or not it's actually of interest to the public. "But," you say, "the Princess meals have been extremely popular." Yeah. I know. And "Norbit" did great business at the box office. That doesn't make it good, and wasn't quality once the prime motivator for Disney?


Joel said...

I don't know if you read my comment thoroughly. I agree with you that Disney pour good money after bad.

However, based on fairly qualified knowledge, I can fairly authoritatively state that Norway was certainly one of the less popular (read "making less money") restaurants in World Showcase.

That's not to say that it wasn't profitable. Much like DisneyQuest in Chicago, the Company simply decided it didn't have interest in providing a unique experience even when it was making money, albeit not mounds and mounds.

It's a matter of trying to apply consistency across multiple locations. For better or for worse (and I personally think it's for the worse), Disney is trying to create generic experiences and delete the former identities of nearly all of its properties. Just look at the cockamamie "Disney Parks" branding that's going on.

What I'm trying to get at is this -- Disney is slowly trying to become very, very boring. They want "proven" brands and aren't very often willing to take a risk.

I guarantee, that unless in the next few years, things take a major step in another direction, we'll literally be dealing with just a few differentiated lines -- Disney Princesses, Disney Pirates, Disney Parks, ABC, ESPN, and whatever the "flavor of the month" is, be it Ratatouille, Stitch, or Enchanted. Once in a great while something may be added to that blase roster of six/seven above, but those are really the only things that Disney itself seems to believe in right now.

And it's pretty pathetic.

So, it's not a matter of whether or not the Norway restaurant was "full" or "successful," it was the easiest choice to remove because it was the most different from all of the other restaurants, and therefore much more expendable.

And that's just plain wrong.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I also understand the Norwegian government decided not to renew its contract, which is a shame. That means no one has supervisory authority over the pavilion except Disney, so it can have its way with Norway. It's really too bad, as this is one of the best, most entertaining pavilions in all of World Showcase ... or, at least, it was. Now, it represents Disney more than it showcases Norway.

Socrates said...

I would like to say that I actually like the new martin short o' canada film. Now I still believe it's out of place and in 20 years he will be forgotten, but I really like Martin Short.

Anonymous said...

All great points...

I think it's interesting the way you've framed certain things with references to Pixar, i.e. "Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Imagineering."

EPCOT is definitely in need of overhaul, and I think Pixar-type infusions are a great a great match for EPCOT's mission.

It definitely opens great possibilities.

Also, EPCOT's 25th anniversary was/is definitely not celebrated as it should have been.

Epcot82 said...

I think Pixar is an extraordinary creative organization that is capable of doing remarkable, game-changing things. To simply take their existing characters and shoehorn them into existing attractions at EPCOT is a bit insulting to the creative geniuses at Pixar and to the EPCOT concept.

Now, take what Pixar CAN DO, combine it with Imagineering and layer in the deep pockets of Disney and you could wind up with something totally new and completely unexpected ... and a lot better than projecting talking cartoon fish onto screens and getting kids to pay attention to animated sea turtles while they turn their backs on the real ones nearby.

But I digress. Pixar could be an extraordinary addition to Disney, but it seems lately that Disney management is just using it as another cog on the ol' "synergy wheel." It's an "asset" to be "leveraged," as Tom Staggs would probably say. That's what Disney's $7 billion reduced it to ...

Anonymous said...

I'm a little surprized that you take exception to the O Canada film with Martin Short but didn't mention El Rio del Tiempo. I cannot belive the Mexican people want their very proud heritage portrayed by 3 cartoon characters. Or the dated (read neeeds to be replaced) movie at The Land. I love kids, have one of my own (now grown up) but don't think every inch of Disney needs to be experienced on a six-year old level. My daughter, then 9, loved EPCOT in 1985 when it was supposedly only interesting to grown-ups. I hope Disney rethinks EPCOT's future and returns to it's original concept as a showcase for tomorrow.

Digital Jedi said...

A lot of us loved EPCOT when it was supposedly boring and when we were the "princess and pirates" age that kids are now. Disney's parks once new how to give everyone what they didn't know they wanted, rather then just milk the latest film to death. But like I've said before, Disney nowadays likes to pander to kids and teens and ignore the principles that made them great to begin with. I for one don't believe it's impossible to eject the money grubbers from the political structure there, but I think we need to keep shining the spotlight on things, as blogs like theses do, until someone finds a way to do so.

Epcot82 said...

Anonymous, if you read back through earlier articles, you'll see that I've had PLENTY to say about El Rio del Tiempo and the singing ducks!

As for The Land, that's an area where I'd say "one thing at a time." At least the movie isn't still "Symbiosis." Generally, WDI did a very good job at expanding and updating The Land.

Back on the subject of kids, restaurants and Norway, here's one word that Disney seems to have overlooked or not taken into consideration, one word that could both capture some of Norway's spirit AND "pander" to the kids in a way that would allow authentic Norwegian food to be served once again:


Or, if you don't like that word, how about this one? Trolls.

Norway has SO MUCH to appeal to kids, I just don't see how inserting Cinderella and Belle (France!) or the other princesses is the answer. Except that people are willing to open their wallets. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. As a fan of EPCOT Center (1982), I feel that it's time to get back to the basics. I want to especially see some work done on Universe of Energy. This is one of the most important issues facing our planet right now. The Imagineers could produce a very optimistic look at advances in technology, future energy generation, and the impact of plentiful and renewable energy on the world. The dinosaurs representing fossil fuels could become a "Small World" type ride-through of a future using clean, renewable energy.

There's so much potential for that pavillion. It breaks my heart to see the dated mess there now.

Disneyana World said...

Innoventions is something I would love to see do better.

It has incredible potential.

Captain Schnemo said...

"Now, take what Pixar CAN DO, combine it with Imagineering and layer in the deep pockets of Disney and you could wind up with something totally new and completely unexpected..."

Exactly. The Pixar guys are undeniably a talented, imaginative bunch, but what's being done with their properties is pretty crass, unimaginative stuff. Technologically, some of it is interesting, but anyone detailed-oriented enough to make films of that quality should understand how incongruous the theming and tone are at some of the Pixar attractions.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine interviewed for a job at Pixar. They told him they didn't want people who thought on their own anymore, they wanted people who would do exactly what Disney wanted.

Come on, Disney -- LISTEN to what's being said!

Anonymous said...

I visited Epcot as a kid in the early 80's. I loved it as it was. Too much animation is just incredibly patronizing....even for the kids! It's not just animation, but the characters they chose are not classics.....I mean, Nemo is in fashion now, but a few years time when everone has stopped talking about the movie.... it's gonna look crap.
Also, that Universe of Energy pre-show, with all the moving blocks....that was just amazing. Never seen anything like the screen made of blocks, probably never will.....